The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Covid. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Covid. Show all posts

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Twilight of the Narrative: Why the Truth will never be Revealed

 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? (John 18:38)

What is truth? We often have a "Hollywood" model of truth: we expect it to triumph at the end of the movie, when the bad guy confesses his crime and everyone agrees on what really happened. 

Reality is very different. Truth is multiple, fractal, hierarchical, a game of mirrors, never showing herself in full. Think of the pandemic: aren't we in the age where the "scientific method" gives us a rational, objective view of the world? And yet, the multifaceted aspects of a hugely complex story seem to be beyond our capability to process it rationally.  Truth is not coming. It may never come. (And you may also be reminded of another case whose 20th anniversary we recently commemorated -- there, too, the truth did not come out and probably never will).

In the post, below, Sheridan analyzes the structure of the memesphere and challenges at the core the idea that the "narrative (about the pandemic) is going to crack" any day now and that the "truth" will be revealed. He says, "There is no longer a unifying narrative that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there is now only a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed over them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, it's just dominant."

In essence, the memetic sphere has shattered into an infinite series of closed microspheres. The dominant macrosphere can no longer control them, despite its desperate efforts at censorship, intimidation, and obfuscation. But if the microspheres don't talk to each other, the truth won't come out, whatever it is.

Read this post: it is truly enlightening

The Twilight of the Narrative

by Simon Sheridan

November 27, 2021 (posted here by the author's kind permission)

Recently, I was visiting a friend’s house when a Michael Jackson song came on the radio and my friend said something interesting that I hadn’t really thought about before. He noted that, at the peak of Jackson’s fame, the releasing of one of his albums was a global event with a coordinated marketing campaign which meant that pretty much everybody in the western world and many parts of the non-western world would have known when a Michael Jackson album was released whether they liked his music or not. This is something the young people these days wouldn’t comprehend as they each have their own social media influencer or Youtube celebrity or whatever that they follow in much smaller sub-cultures than before. Even the most popular pop stars of today are only known to a subset of the population never the whole population like Jackson was. 

This observation got me thinking about a subject that I have been pondering for a while which is the impact of the internet on our culture. It seems to me this impact is not really discussed much anymore even though it is directly contributing to our current woes. One of the main changes wrought by the internet is the shattering of “grand narratives”. A Michael Jackson album release is one. But the pattern extends into other areas of the public discourse where its effects are far more important such as the narratives that hold countries together. As the corona event drags on interminably, there are those in the dissenter camp who still think the “narrative is about to crack” any day now and the “truth” will be revealed. 

This mindset from the old, pre-internet world is no longer valid in the world we live. There is no unifying narrative any more that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there are now just a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed on top of them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, just dominant. The emergence of the “conspiracy theory” label alongside the daily censorship that now happens on social media platforms are among a number of tactics that are now used to try and subdue alternative narratives in the hope of allowing a centralised narrative to form. But it never does for the simple reason that you cannot coerce people into believing a narrative. Narratives must evolve organically with a feedback loop between top-down and bottom-up. The increasing use of censorious tactics in the last couple of years reveals the underlying weakness of the dominant narrative. The powers that be have gone all out in attempting to hold together a narrative that itself doesn’t make sense as it is changed willy-nilly according to purely political considerations. 

It’s tempting to think the politicians are doing it on purpose with some larger objective in mind. But what if there is no larger objective? What if these tactics are simply what is required now to create any type of dominant narrative at all? What if these tactics are now the price you pay to create a narrative? If so, that price has gone through the roof. We can usefully call this narrative inflation. If you increase the supply of money, you get monetary inflation. If you increase the supply of narratives, you get narrative inflation. The price to create a dominant narrative has gone up for a number of reasons but one is that the internet opened the floodgates on the flow of information and allowed multiple alternative narratives to be created. This has created its own dynamic independent of the political and economic considerations that are also driving the trend. It may turn out that one of the consequences of allowing free and instant information is to destroy centralised narratives. There are good sociological and psychological reasons why this would be the case.

Eyewitness testimony has long been problematic for police trying to investigate an incident or crime. Even for something relatively straightforward like a car accident, where the eyewitnesses themselves have no personal stake in the story, accounts can diverge radically. Ten people witnessing a car accident can give you ten different stories of the crash. These problems are greatly exacerbated when the individuals involved have a vested interest in the case as often happens in criminal investigations. This eternal problem has been dealt with in numerous fiction and non-fiction works. The best non-fiction work I have seen about the subject is the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in which a school teacher is found to have child pornography in his home which leads to a series of events including him pleading guilty to sexually abusing some of his students. The documentary follows the motivations of those involved as rumour of the crime spreads in the local community creating its own dynamic as gossip and innuendo put enormous pressure of the family at the centre of the case. By the end of the documentary, we don’t know whether any of the official story is true as the lies and deceits create second and third order effects that distort the whole picture. 

This real-life account mirrors one of the best fictional representations of the problem, Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon”, in which a murder occurs in the forest but we hear radically different versions of the event told by the people involved (including, dramatically, the deceased). The philosophical question raised by both films is whether or not there can be found an objective standard of truth. This is a problem philosophers have wrestled with for millennia but it becomes a practical problem in cases involving crime where we want to see justice served and yet we have multiple, irreconcilable accounts about reality and seemingly no way to choose between them. At the end of the process, the system gives a verdict of guilty-not guilty and this is taken as the “truth” but is it really the truth?

With the internet, we have seen the same psychology applied to the public discourse and this has created practical problems for politics. Politicians love to divide the public where it suits their interest but it’s also true that they need to appeal to a foundation which unites the public. The process is similar to the justice system. Although there is disagreement and competition within the system, everybody must agree to play by the rules. The system itself is the thing people believe in. The public discourse which existed prior to the internet was facilitated through a system in which the media was known as the “fourth estate”. Its job was to hold government to account. Of course, this was not a perfect system but, as the saying goes, it seems it was better than all the others. It was certainly better than the system we have now where the media does not hold the government to account at all and is little more than a public relations branch of the government. 

Recently in the New Zealand parliament, Jacinda Ardern was questioned about $55 million her government gave to media with certain conditions attached about what could be reported on. In Australia, the government waived the usual licence fee for the mainstream media channels back in March 2020. This amounted to around $44 million in subsidies. The theory was that this was needed because covid was expected to reduce advertising revenue, a strange claim given that the whole population was about to be locked at home with every incentive to watch the news. That measure came after the Australian government famously held Facebook and other big tech players to ransom and forced them to pay money to Australian media companies for content. Whatever the ethical dimensions of these issues, what lies beneath is the fact that the media companies are no longer viable businesses capable of existing without government support. Because they are now reliant on government money, their function as the fourth estate that holds government to account has also all but disappeared. That’s a problem for them but it’s also a problem for the government. The “official narrative” is transmitted through the legacy media. If the legacy media goes away, so does the narrative. Governments know that if the media disappeared, so would a large chunk of their power. The government needs the media as much as the media needs the government.

I would argue that the public also needs the media. It needs the media to act as its representative. That was the whole point of the Fourth Estate arrangement. The public paid for the media and that meant the media had an incentive to represents the readership’s interests. But that is all gone now. Some people think the public doesn’t really need the media. For almost any event, we are able to watch live video online now. Once upon a time we needed the newspaper to tell us the facts, but we simply don’t need that anymore. You might think that’s a good thing. We remove the middle man and allow the public to see events for themselves. But that introduces the same problem you have with eyewitness accounts which is that you get as many versions of the “truth” as there are people. The discourse becomes fragmented and the checks and balances that once held disappear. It’s a bit like having a crime investigation without a detective. “The system” can no longer control the discourse the way it previously could. This is not a trivial matter. It leads us back to one of Plato’s most dangerous ideas which is the Noble Lie. The idea goes that society cannot exist and justice cannot be served unless there are a number of lies which bind society together. Lie is, of course, a very strong word. We could soften it by calling them myths or ideals but the effect is the same. The myths and ideals are the glue that holds things together and, according to Plato, without them society will disintegrate.

Our post-internet public discourse provides some evidence for this assertion. It has become completely detached from reality or, to put it another way, it represents only one version of reality: the one that comes from the top-down. This process is especially advanced in the US. It hit a fever pitch with the Trump presidency and has not relaxed since. There are now at least two mutually incompatible narratives going on in the US meaning that agreement about the fundamentals which hold society together is called into question on an almost daily basis. It’s quite common to hear somebody on either side of the debate label somebody on the other side as “crazy” or “insane” and that is one manifestation of the problem. Within this new world, the idea that the “narrative is about to crack” doesn’t make sense. The dominant narrative is held in place by power, not by truth. By definition, the only thing that can “crack” it is another source of power. This was Trump’s genius. He hijacked the entire machinery that generates the narrative and turned it to his own purposes. But I think Trump was the end of the road. They got rid of him but in doing so they removed any last pretence that the narrative was “fair” or “truthful”. You can’t just delete the sitting President and then go back to normal as if nothing happened. As a result, a large proportion of the population no longer has any faith whatsoever in the system. That holds true no matter who is in power. The dominant narrative is now nothing more than the story told by those in power.

In Australia and much of Europe and Canada, we are just now catching up with the US. Here in Melbourne, more than a hundred thousand people marched against the government last weekend. The Premier’s response was to write them off as “thugs” and “extremists”. It reminded me an awful lot of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” moment. When politicians no longer feel like they need to accommodate the interests and opinions of a substantial proportion of the population you know the narrative is already fractured. Andrews may or may not get away with that politically for now but the protestors represent a new group in Australian public life; the ones excluded from the narrative. The same goes for the demonstrators in Europe who are simply ignored by the mainstream media. Because the public discourse no longer pretends to reflect reality, nobody really believes in it including the people who nominally go along with it. Deep down they also must know that it is fake. 

We are entering a time when even the idea of a centralised narrative is no longer believed in. If Plato was right, this fact alone is an existential threat to the state and it is understandable that the state would strive to fix the problem. But it’s almost certainly too late. All of the censorship and victimisation in the world won’t put humpty dumpty together again. Going forward I expect we’ll still have an “official narrative” but nobody will really believe it. That’s what is implied by the falling revenue numbers of the mainstream media channels. Will that lead to the disintegration of the state? Plato would have said yes. We may be about to test that theory.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Slow Collapse of the Catholic Church

This image may have been created as a joke, but the fact that it exists is a symptom that something is deeply wrong with the Catholic Church. If it is true that the Church has been existing for nearly two thousand years, it is also true that no structure is too big to fail. The churches are empty, the faithful have been turned into masked zombies afraid of each other, and the very sanctity of the human body, one of the pillars of Christianity, is in doubt. Are we going to see the end of God-based religions, replaced by scientism as the state religion? According to the Seneca Principle "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."


It is a long story that of religions. The first forms of religious organizations go back to the birth of civilization in Mesopotamia, during the 3rd millennium BCE. At that time, there was no such a thing as a "Church," but there existed temples dedicated to local deities that were a mix of manufacturing centers and shopping malls. But what made temples unique in human history was their role as banks. The priests would assist economic transactions by weighing the silver and the gold involved. The benevolent local God would ensure honest weighing. In those times, there were no such things as moral codes or promises for the afterlife. Religion was a very down to earth enterprise in which you paid something for the favor of the God(s).

This role of the temples lasted for millennia and we still find traces of it in the gospels when Jesus chases out the money changers from the temple of Jerusalem. Actually, they were not "money changers," they are defined as "trapezitai" in the original, which translates as "bankers." But, at the time of Jesus, this role for temples was already a relic of the past. The invention of coinage during the 6th century AD had changed the rules of the game. Coins could simply be counted, and their weight was guaranteed not by God, but by the King or the Emperor. 

With the Roman Empire, religion took a position of complete subordination to the state. The priests would bless the troops leaving for battle, provide potions, charms, and amulets to those who could pay, but little more. From the time when Augustus Caesar took the title of Pontifex Maximum, in 12 AD, the religious and the political leader of the state were one and the same person: the Emperor. In time, the emperor started to be considered a living God himself. 

But the great wheel of history keeps turning and soon the mighty Roman Empire found itself in trouble. The mines that had made it rich were exhausted with the 3rd century AD. And one constant of history is that if you have no money you can have no empire. 

So, the Christian Church arose from the ashes of the Roman Empire as a structure that, within some limits, provided the services that the state could not provide anymore. The security once guaranteed by the once mighty Roman army was now in the hands of the ἐκκλησία (ecclesia), the gathering of the faithful, and the επίσκοπί, (episcopes, or bishops), the overseers. The Church replaced the old Empire in many ways and for centuries was a fundamental force in maintaining the cultural unity of Europe. It provided services that the small states of the time could not provide: a common culture, a common language, a common heritage.

Toward the end of the first millennium, the great wheel of history turned again. The discovery of new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe remonetized the European economy. In 800 AD, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, became powerful enough to have himself crowned "Holy Roman Emperor" by the Pope. The idea was to recreate the ancient Roman Empire, but the Church stubbornly refused to cede the title of Pontifex to the new emperors. It would have meant, again, the complete subordination of the Church to the State. 

There followed centuries of struggles, with the Church slowly losing ground. With the Church becoming more and more corrupt, in 1520 there came Luther's reformation that forever broke the unity of Western Christianity. The last time when the Church tried and failed to have an important political role in Europe was with the "Controversy of Valladolid" in 1550, an attempt to soften the harsh exploitation of the Native American peoples by the European colonists. Not only the Church was ignored, but the attempt backfired, generating the legend that it was the Church that had promoted the extermination of the natives. This is the way propaganda works. 

With the 19th century, the states were turning to a new kind of ideological support for their domination of society. It was "Scientism," usually called just "Science." The new set of ideas emphasized growth and expansion, providing also new weapons and technologies that allowed Europe to conquer most of the world. 

The last attempt of the Catholic Church to escape the growing encroachment by the state was with the encyclical letter "De Rerum Novarum" of 1891. It was an attempt to "reset" the huge, millenarian structure by returning to its original vision of a revolutionary force on the side of the poor and the oppressed. With the "De Rerum Novarum," the Church strongly reaffirmed its international status and its privileged relation with the poor.

It was a valiant attempt, but it failed for several reasons. One was that the Church had placed itself in direct competition with the Communist party for the souls of the workers. But the Communist party had better leverage because it wasn't contaminated with the superstructure of compromises with the rich that the Church carried along. Another was that the national states were simply too powerful to be contrasted by the internationalist movements (Communism, Socialism, and Christian reformism). By 1915, Europeans assisted to the disheartening spectacle of two Catholic countries, Austria and Italy, making war on each other. And, on both sides, Catholic priests were blessing the soldiers and exhorting them to kill their Christian brothers on the other side of the frontline. The same sad spectacle was taking place on all frontlines. Something was deeply wrong at the core of Christianity.

Both the Church and the Communist party managed to remain important political forces for most of the 20th century, but they faded with the turn of the millennium. The Communist Party went first with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Right now, it has no organized presence in the world, except in China. But the Chinese Communist Party has no pretense of organizing proletarian revolutions anywhere. 

The Church survived a little longer, but its decline is evident. In the 1990s, it received a heavy blow from a propaganda campaign that painted Catholic priests as pedophiles. It should go without saying that there is no evidence that pedophilia is a larger problem in the Church than it is in other organizations. But the accusation stuck and the polls show that, still today, a majority of people are convinced that the Catholic Church is a den of pedophiles. It is not known who started the campaign or why. In any case, it was another devastating blow.

The coup de grace may have arrived in 2020, with the Covid epidemic. The Catholic Church found itself completely defeated by a propaganda campaign that turned some of the basic tenets of Christianity over the head. Already in Roman times, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, considered one of the precursors of Christianity, had said "Homo Sacra Res Homini" -- "humans are holy to each other." And the Church had at its basis the sacred value of the human body. Just think how the central belief of Christianity is that God himself incarnated inside a human body, in flesh and blood, for the love of humankind. And that the believers are supposed to reincarnate in the flesh on the day of judgment.

Suddenly, the Church saw the human body turned from a holy image of the divine spirit into a receptacle of dangerous germs. Whereas St. Francis would kiss lepers, the devout Catholic is now advised to hide their face and keep at a distance from their Christian brothers and sisters. The holy water, a basic feature of Church rituals, was suddenly turned into a dangerous bacterial soup that no one sane in his mind would even dream to touch. Once, the Christian mass ritual required shaking hands with each other as a sign of peace. Now, the mass has turned into a gathering of zombies, unrecognizable and afraid of getting too close to each other. Even worse, the dead of Covid were denied the last sacraments and even a Christian burial. Their bodies were considered unclean and treated in the same way as urban waste is treated: first dumped into trucks and then into incinerators. 

Given the situation, you may understand how the Pope recommended to the faithful to vaccinate themselves "as an act of love". Of course, you may argue that it was not the business of the Pope to recommend that, not any more than recommending the use of flushing toilets as an act of love. But the pope was not alone: the whole Church hierarchy is recommending vaccination. They hope that with vaccines everything will return back to normal and the churches will fill again with unmasked people not afraid to shake each other's hands. 

Unfortunately, the Pope's recommendation may backfire. One problem is that by now it is becoming clear that the vaccines do not guarantee full immunity and that all the other "non-pharmaceutical measures," masks, distances, etc. will be maintained for a long time, perhaps forever. So, we may never return to what we once considered as "normal." Then, by recommending vaccines, the Pope was officially declaring that the Church was powerless and subordinated to the dominant Scientism. 

The Covid may well be the bullet at the head that kills the zombie that the Catholic Church has become. It managed to exist for nearly 2,000 years, one of the longest-lasting organizations in history, but no organization has ever been too big to fail when its moment comes.  Surely, the collapse will not be sudden, especially considering that the Church still has important economic assets, and even a small state, the Vatican City State, with a seat in the United Nations, a small army, a diplomatic corps, and much more. But, when things take a certain direction, the flow may be impossible to reverse. Sic transit gloria mundi.

But is this so bad? Sometimes, change needs to be radical, otherwise it does not occur. Even the pope emeritus, Cardinal Ratzinger, said that the Church "needs a reset" in a recent interview. In the book "Niente Sarà Più Come Prima" (2021), the Catholic theologian Stefano Didoné says, 

"The collapse of the religious form that Christianity had taken in the West does not automatically mean the collapse of the very experience of the Faith, but its transformation in a human experience characterized by the strong desire of authenticity. <..> A formal religiosity without relations and without love does not attract the young (and not even the adults). This would open the way  to new (and urgent) theological interpretations of this post-secular age."

In other words, there is no religion without an authentic experience of Faith. And in the Christian tradition, no one can save himself or herself alone, praying in front of a TV screen. There is no salvation except in the gathering of the faithful, the ecclesia. Religion intended in this way has existed since the times of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna and will not disappear so soon. New forms of religion or renovated forms of the old ones may appear. It may be a good thing that we badly need to get rid of the current vision of the world that sees everything (including human beings) as an economic resource to be exploited.

(*) This analysis of mine does not pretend to be exhaustive and it deals mostly with the Catholic Church, which I know reasonably well. Other organized religions are facing the current situation in different ways. If we take the resistance to vaccination as a proxy for independence from the state, the data show that Protestants are less integrated than Catholics in the US. In Eastern Europe, the Orthodox Church has suffered a long period of persecution from the state and has emerged out of it rather wary of everything that the state recommends. Asian religions, such as Buddhism, have ceased all attempts to affect politics, at least from the time of the Japanese warrior-monk, Benkei. Finally, about Islam, we have a completely different organization. Whereas in the West the state and religion are two separate entities, in Islamic countries religion is the state. Muslims have a historical diffidence on the tricks created by Western-style states. For the time being, Islam generally recommends vaccination, but things might change. As they always do.


Friday, May 21, 2021

The Rt Factor in the Pandemic: Is it Useful for Anything?

by Ugo Bardi, 

In these notes, I do not intend to replace the epidemiology specialists, my purpose is informative and tries to provide some data and some useful information to everyone in this situation, where the pandemic has become more a political issue than a scientific one. So, if we are to make informed decisions, we need to have the tools to understand what we are talking about, very difficult in the current cacophony of data and reasoning. Here, I have done my best to clear up the Rt factor issue using as an example a hypothetical epidemic, "bluite", which causes you to turn blue like the characters in the movie "Avatar". 

Note, this post was translated and adapted from my Italian blog Medio Evo Elettrico."  It still contains references to the Italian situation. But I think most of it is of general interest.

You surely noticed how in the discussions about the pandemic, the "R factor" is very popular. This factor, expressed as "Ro" or "Rt",  seems to give us useful information in a simple form, and we all know that politicians are always looking for simple solutions to complicated problems. And it is also based on the Rt factor that many governments decide on their restriction policies.

However, I bet that neither the politicians nor many of the tv-virologists who populate the media really understand what exactly this Rt factor is. In the real world, things are never simple and the R factor is not an exception to the rule. As Professor Antonello Maruotti  (1) noted the use of the Rt factor could result in a "persistent blindness on the part of political decision-makers." 

So what exactly is this Rt? How is it determined? How useful is it? And is it really a parameter on which it is worth basing all the restrictions policy that the government is doing? Let's try to understand how things stand.

A definition you can easily find all over the Web is that the Rt factor is “ the average number of people infected by an already infected person over a certain period of time."

There is a big problem, here. If we take the definition literally, it means that the epidemic can never go down. If there is at least one infected person, it will always infect someone else, and so the epidemic will grow forever. Clearly, the definition above is incomplete. We also need to take into account the people who recover (or die) in the time interval considered.

The matter is made more complex by the fact that in epidemiology there are two similar terms, one is called Ro and the other Rt. To give some idea of ​​the confusion, read the Wikipedia article on Ro, where you'll find that the definition of Ro "is not universally shared" and that "The inconsistency in the name and definition of the parameter Ro was potentially a cause of misunderstanding of its meaning." In short, a nice mess, to say the least. (this is from the Italian version of Wikipedia. The English one is better, but confusion reigns anyway)

Now, I understand that those who are specialists in a certain field tend to keep in the dark those who are not. But it seems to me that they are a little exaggerating, here. So, let's try to extricate ourselves from the various involved and misleading definitions, the best way to understand this story is to consider that a virus is a living creature so that biological laws and definitions apply. So, Rt in epidemiology is nothing else but the net reproduction rate parameter in biological populations.

This is an easily understood concept: take a population (say, rabbits). Consider the number of bunnies born for each generation: that's the "reproduction rate." Then, consider the number of rabbits that die in the same period of time because they are old, or they are eaten by foxes. Take the ratio of births to deaths and you have the net reproduction rate: if more rabbits are born than die, it must be Rt> 1. It is the opposite if Rt <1. A virus population is no different from a rabbit population in terms of growth or decline. Viruses multiply when someone infects someone else, but they die when someone is healed (or dies). 

How about Ro? It is simply the net reproduction rate at t=0, that is at the very beginning of the epidemic when there are no recovered and immunized individuals. 

These are the basic points. Then, it is always easier to understand something when it is expressed in terms of a concrete example, so let me propose an explanation based on a hypothetical epidemic that I call "bluite." There is some math in the following, but if you are willing to spend some time on that, you can develop a good "mental model" of how this Rt factor works.

The "bluite": a simplified epidemic example

Let's imagine a hypothetical infectious disease that is transmitted by contact, let's call it "bluite" because it makes you turn blue.
Incidentally, a disease that turns people blue really exists, it's called "argyria,the result of being exposed to silver salts. Some people ingest silver as an alternative therapy for certain diseases, not a good idea unless you want to find a job as an actor on the set of a science fiction movie. But let's not go into this, in any case, argyria is not infectious.

So, let's imagine that bluite arrived on Earth from the blue (indeed!). Let's also assume that bluite is a 100% benign disease. That is, it does not cause unpleasant symptoms and does not kill anyone. Hence, no one takes special precautions against it. Let's also assume that those who have been infected become immune forever, or at least for a long time. But their skin remains slightly grayish for some timeFinally, let's assume that bluite has a very short infection cycle: in one day it passes, and this applies to everyone. 

So, let's imagine that we counted, on a certain day, the number of blue-skinned people passing by on the street. Let's say that we counted 1000 people and that 10 of them had blue faces. If the sample is statistically significant, we can say that 1% of the population is infected. If we extrapolate to the whole population, suppose we are in Italy with 60 millions of inhabitants, it means that there are 600,000 people infected with bluite. This fraction is called "prevalence" in the jargon of epidemiology.

So far, so good, but that doesn't tell us anything about how the epidemic is evolving. For this, we need data measured as a function of time. Let's assume then that we do the same measurement again the next day. We find that there are now 20 blues, again out of 1000 people: this number of new infections in a certain period is called the "incidence." In this particular case, since the infection lasts one day and we make one measurement per day, the incidence is equal to the prevalence. 

Can we now measure the Rt factor? Sure. We said that Rt is the net reproduction rate of the population. So, over a one day interval, we have 20 newly infected people, but 10 people recovered in the meantime. It follows that Rt = 20/10 = 2. Easy, isn't it? (note that I chose the data in such a way as to have a nice round number as the result).

Easy, but you have to be careful when you extrapolate this procedure. At this point, you could say that if in one day the number of infected people have doubled, their number will continue to double every day. That is, 10, 20, 40, 80 ... etc. 

This is the mistake made by those who speak of the "exponential growth" of the epidemic; it is an acceptable approximation only in the very early stages of diffusion. Do some math, and you will see that if the number of cases of bluite were to double every day, in a week, there would be more people infected than the whole population. Slightly unlikely, to say the least.

The mistake here is to confuse the net reproduction rate (Rt) with the (simple) reproduction rate. They are not the same thing: the former is the growth rate of the population, the latter is the probability that a "blue" has to infect a "normal" when an encounter takes place. In general, we cannot directly measure the reproduction rate, we can only estimate it. Just to propose some numbers, let's assume that, on average, everyone in the population encounters 4 people every day at a close enough distance to infect them. Since there were 10 blues in the beginning, and 20 new ones came out, it would seem that the probability of infection at close range was 50% for each encounter. But is not so.

Not all people a blue encounters are "normal," that is susceptible to infection. We said that there were 10 blues in the population when the measurement was made and we may also assume that there were 10 grays (previously infected, now immune). It follows that only 98% of the population are susceptible ("normal") people. So the probability for a blue to infect someone is not 50%. It is 0.5 / 0.98 = 51%. It's a small difference, but it's the key to the whole story. 

To understand this point, first let's estimate the value of Ro, when the first blue alien from the planet Pandora landed and began infecting Earthlings. At that time, the whole population (100%) was susceptible to infection. Since we found that the simple reproduction rate is 0.51, it follows that Ro = 0.51x4 = 2.4. This was the initial value of the net reproduction rate when the epidemic had just begun.

But Ro has to do with the past, let's instead calculate how things are expected to develop in the future. The next day, the 20 infected people will each interact with 4 people, and a total of 80 people will be exposed to the virus. Not all of them will be susceptible, the number will be equal to 1000 (total number of people) - 20 (the blues of the day) - 20 (the grays of the previous days) divided by the total population. That is 960 people, or a fraction of 96%. It follows that the 20 infected people will generate 20 * 0.51 * 4 * .96 = 39 new infected individuals and not 40, as it would have been the case if the number of infected people had remained constant. At this point, Rt has shrunk to 39/20 = 1.96. You can see that Rt will shrink a little every day that goes by

From here, you can have fun doing a calculation with an excel sheet, but I did it for you. Here are the results, the red curve is a fitting with an asymmetric sigmoid curve:


Note how the curve of the daily infections (red) has the typical “bell shape" of epidemic curves (mathematically, it is the same as the "Hubbert Curve" in petroleum extraction). Note also that we didn't assume that the infection was cured or that there were precautionary measures in place: distances, face masks, nothing like that. Infections go to zero simply because fewer and fewer people remain susceptible. 

In this particular case, the number of people who contracted the infection stabilizes at around 74% of the total at the end of the epidemic cycle. The rest will never be infected. Do you see how “herd immunity” works? Over a quarter of the people in the population do not become infected, even though the virus was highly infectious at the beginning and no one took precautions of any kind. It is an intrinsic property of the spread of an epidemic.

Notice also how the curve for Rt always goes down, at least in this simplified case. You see that when the epidemic is at its peak, Rt is equal to one. Eventually, it stabilizes around 0.5. Depending on the various parameters, it can stabilize on different values, but always less than 1. 


Effect of restrictions on bluite

Now let's have a little fun using this model to see the effects of restrictions. The idea of things such as "social distancing" or face masks is that they reduce the likelihood that the virus will be transferred from one person to another. This is sometimes called "crushing the curve". 

First, let's plot again the results we obtained above without assuming any restrictions.


Now let's try to reduce the likelihood of the infection by 25% by some unspecified method. Here are the results


You see that the curve is indeed "crushed". But also note that the duration of the outbreak is longer and that the final value of Rt, contrary to what one might expect, increases slightly instead of decreasing. As for the total number of infected people, the restrictions have reduced it from 74% to about 58% of the population. If we assume that the effect of the restrictions is even greater, say to 50%, we can squeeze the curve even further and reduce cases to about 15% of the population. By further reducing the likelihood of infection, the epidemic just doesn't develop. Finally, note that this is the result of having imposed the restrictions from the start of the epidemic cycle and of maintaining them for the whole cycle.

Let's now try to see what happens if, as it is more likely, the restrictions start at some moment after the epidemic has already started and they are maintained for a limited time window. In the graph below, restrictions with a 25% reduction effect are assumed to have been put in place on the third day, and reopening occurs on the ninth day.

Notice that the contagion curve more or less retains the "bell shape," although it is now a bit skewed. Instead, the Rt factor shows fairly sharp discontinuities. Note also that the infection lasts longer. We have reduced the intensity of the outbreak in exchange for a longer duration. In these assumptions, the total number of cases is intermediate compared to the two previous examples: the number of infected people stands at 67%.

You can have fun by changing the parameters, but the results can be summarized by noting that using restrictions to bring the infection curve to zero is almost impossible. The effect of the restrictions is seen as a discontinuity in the Rt factor curve better than in the contagion curve. 


The real world

All this applies to a hypothetical epidemic that we have called bluite and to a simplified model. In the case of a real epidemic, the situation is more complex, but the results are not very different. The basic prediction of the model, that of the "bell" shape of the contagion curve, is confirmed by real-world data. In the figure, we see an example, a recent cholera epidemic in Kinshasa, Congo.


In this, as in many other real cases, we see a "bell-shaped" curve. Note how the number of cases never really goes to zero, contrary to what the model predicts. The pathogen becomes "endemic", ready to return to the scene when it finds favorable conditions to start over. 

What can we say about Rt in the real world? Here, the calculation is much more complex than for the hypothetical bluite. The infection does not have a fixed duration and it is also possible to get re-infected. Then there are the various uncertainties in determining the number of infected people, the delays with the availability of data, the effects of mutations, and more.  

The result is that calculating Rt for an ongoing epidemic is a complex matter that is left to specialists.  With these methods, the prediction that Rt should fall with time during each epidemic cycle is generally verified, but it is also true that many epidemics have multiple cycles, so the Rt factor can also reverse its trend and restart growing for a certain period.

Here are some recent data (for Italy) from Maurizio Rainisio's FB site (2). Here, you see an equivalent of Rt (which Rainisio calls the "Weekly Growth Rate"). The epidemic had two phases, probably due to seasonal factors, or perhaps also to the effect of the "variants" of the virus. Notice how the peak of the most recent phase corresponds to Rt = 1.


Here, it is very difficult to see an effect of the various red, orange, yellow, etc. zones (as they were created in Italy). For example, Rt showed a steep rise at the beginning of February 2021, while it started to decline around February 20. Is there a correlation with any specific action taken by the government that can be seen in the curve?  Maybe, but it is certainly weak.

 Conclusion: is Rt any good?

The usefulness of something always depends on the context. A submachine gun can be very useful in certain circumstances, but it's a bad idea if it's in the hands of a Taliban, especially if there's a tv shop nearby. This also applies to statistical models if they end up in the hands of people who don't understand them.

Thus, in the first place, the calculation of the Rt factor does not give you, and could never give you, any more information than what is already present in the curve of the trend of the epidemic. We saw that epidemic curves tend to have a "bell" shape so that it is possible to qualitatively understand whether the epidemic increases or decreases simply by the shape of the curve. The calculation of the Rt factor may be more sensitive to the trend, but it adds no more information. 

Then there is the problem that the value of Rt can tell us if the epidemic grows or declines, but nothing about the number of infected people. Clearly, there is a big difference if we have 100 infected people out of 1000 or if we only have 10, but the value of Rt could be the same. And this is not a detail: depending on the absolute value of the number of infections, hospitals may or may not risk becoming saturated. But the Rt factor, alone, tells us nothing on this point.

Above all, when the infected are few, the importance of the inevitable measurement errors and approximations changes (3). If you have 100 cases out of 1000, an error of a few units has little effect: whether they are 101 or 99, nothing changes. But if you have two cases on a certain day, while you had just one the day before, you would think that Rt is much larger than 1, and you should sound the alarm. In this case, the sensationalism of the media is a big problem. And so you could find yourself shutting down an entire country because of a statistical fluctuation.

But the biggest problem is precisely in the concept. As I said before, many people don't understand how an epidemic mechanism works and truly believe that an epidemic grows exponentially until everyone is infected. And, consequently, they are convinced that if we see that the contagion curve decreases, this is due solely and only to the restrictions. You find it explicitly written, sometimes: "the Rt factor measures the effect of the containment measures". But this is absolutely not the case!

Not that there is no way to slow down an ongoing epidemic! Vaccines, for example, force the achievement of immunity in individuals and cause herd immunity to be achieved more quickly. But if you see the epidemic waning or rising, you don't necessarily have to relate it to restrictions or vaccines alone. The epidemic has its own cycle, you can slow it down, but you have to take that into account.

Unfortunately, the debate has arrived at the conclusion that the only thing (aside from vaccines) that can stop the epidemic are restrictions. And the restrictions have a huge cost not only on the economy but also on the health of citizens. But until we think about it we will continue to insist on measures that may be exaggerated and not justified in comparison to the costs.

In essence, the problem is that many people, even among policymakers, cannot read a Cartesian graph and have no idea how an epidemic cycle works. So, they tend to rely on a single magic number, "Rt" for simplicity. But the situation does not lend itself to extreme simplifications and, as always, ignorance pays only negative dividends.






Friday, April 23, 2021

Everything is Illuminated: The New Middle Ages

 The Enlightened Middle Ages: Prepare for a New Way of Running Society

The concept of "back to the Middle Ages" is becoming more and more widespread. Indeed, we must begin to think seriously not so much about a "return" to the Middle Ages but a "New Middle Ages" that takes its best features from the old, in particular the management of society based on justice and not on violence, the decentralization of governance structures, the economy based on local resources, and economic stability (although not of the population). That's why I have renamed my Italian blog "Electric Middle Ages." Here is a translation of a post that Luisella Chiavenuto published first in "Humanism and Science", where she goes to the core of the problems we face nowadays. (boldface highlights are mine).


By Luisella Chiavenuto

Despite its success and power, the credibility and dignity of science are at an all-time low. It is no longer a question of opposing only the management of the covid crisis, but also - and at the same time - opposing a scientistic and dehumanizing technocracy that in the absence of opposition will not step back - regardless of the covid and its variants. In a context of evaporation of jobs, the social order will most likely be based on an extended citizenship income - and subordinated to certain social behaviors. This is to maintain minimum levels of consumption and consensus - and combined with further development and updating of the current economic model - which is destroying the web of life everywhere.


The perspective is therefore long-term: resistance and elaboration of new models of thought and social organization, aimed at rediscovering the cultural roots of the past, and at the same time oriented towards a future with a human face - in which theoretical and practical knowledge intertwine and they evolve freely, without space-time preconceptions.

It is also important to support the political transversality of intent, which to a small or large extent already exists in people, within every organization. This is to slow down systemic collapses, thus giving time to the emergence of organizations that are radically different from the current ones. And remembering that this transversality exists above all outside parties and institutions - in the majority of the "politically desperate".

To allow maximum flexibility - and "ontological" confidence - in responding to the systemic collapses in progress, one can perhaps think of a sort of "enlightened Middle Ages" in which - to quote A. Langer (note: Langer was an Italian ecologist and intellectual) and others before him - all this is sought which is "slow, sweet and profound" - in a context of material poverty that will be for many an obligatory and painful condition, but at the same time an opportunity for a different rebirth.


In summary, one could speak of resistance against a Technoscience devoted to the bioinformatics and bioengineering reprogramming of nature, and of life, in all its forms - a techno-knowledge in the grip of a delirium of omnipotence and exaltation, in its dark and desperate background,

A new Humanism of Complexity can be opposed to this Reductivist Technoscience, which also includes the best of scientific thought - but on a level of equal cultural and political dignity. And with the awareness both of the greatness, and of the dark side, and of the crimes, which are woven into all cultures and all cultural currents - obviously including all contemporary ones. A Humanism of Complexity, therefore, based on a Wisdom that can be defined as non-dual, as it is oriented to the recomposition of the fractures that cross and fragment our life, our psyche, reality in all its interconnected levels.


Therefore, the clash between opposing cultural paradigms must be, at the same time, also a human and intellectual encounter between people where possible - and beyond the impossible - to overcome and recompose the lacerations. This also means supporting both the freedom of movement for everyone in every place, and the freedom to remain in their land and culture of origin. Ultimately, it means striving to radically overcome the friend/enemy dichotomy, and having the courage to speak of empathy and universal fraternity, as an ethical and political ideal - within a horizon of collaborating bio-diversity.

Ethical ideal, but also intellectual acquisition, unifying and not naive - capable of attempting global and local responses to problems that can only be faced on both interconnected sides. Are we up to these tasks? Obviously not, nobody is, it is useless to insist .... and then we can be - and do - what we can and can, accepting our limits.  But also considering that we are a mystery to ourselves and that therefore our individual and collective resources are ultimately unfathomable, like life itself.

Luisella Chiavenuto April 2021

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Neutrino Tunnel Under the Alps Will be Finally Built, Declares Italian Minister Mariastella Gelmini.


The new neutrino tunnel from Central Italy to Switzerland will be based on gender parity hiring practices. Here, four young miners are ready to start their work at a tunnel that will be about 750 km long (image source)


Ms. Mariastella Gelmini, currently Minister of Regional Affairs and Autonomies of the Italian Government, has announced today that the Neutrino Tunnel from the CERN in Switzerland and the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, Italy, has been approved by the Italian Government as part of the actions financed by the European Recovery Funds.

Ms. Mariastella Gelmini is on record for having mentioned the tunnel in a 2011 press release, when she was minister of Public Education and Scientific Research. She was heavily criticized for that, since no such tunnel existed at that time. But now, 10 years later, it appears clear that Gelmini's statement was prophetic.

The construction is expected to start before the end of 2021. It will involve a considerable financial effort since the distance between the two laboratiories is about 750 km. But the challenge, declared Ms. Gelmini, is worth the effort since it opens the way to attain speeds higher than light. These speeds, she added, could be especially useful for the members of the current Italian government were to need to leave Rome in a hurry.

Mr. Mario Draghi, prime minister of the Italian government, praised Ms. Gelmini statement and hinted that the new tunnel may be named in her honor when it will be completed. He added that superluminal speed may be a welcome feature for monetary transfers all over the world.

Mr. Roberto Speranza, Italian ministry of health, also praised the construction of the new tunnel, but declared that the superluminal neutrinos arriving in Italy will have to be quarantined for a certain period as they could be carriers of viral infections.

 Mr. Roberto Speranza and Ms. Mariastella Gelmini at the press conference announcing the plans for the new neutrino tunnel.